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The war for graduate talent: how to win over the best grads

Whether your company is big or small, in a traditional UK-based industry like construction, or a fast-moving Chinese technology company, there’s one thing that is taxing some of the best brains in the organisation: The war for talent. And in particular, for the best graduate talent.

Strategy

Fran Brosan

FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN

Fran’s focus is advising clients on the strategic role that digital communications and technologies can play in strengthening business performance. She is author of Omobono’s award winning research programme ‘What Works Where in B2B Digital Marketing’ and has 3 IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards to her name.

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We recently interviewed Cambridge University STEM students to find out what they’re looking for in graduate employers, and hosted a Business Breakfast to share our findings with a group of senior recruitment marketers. We discussed the challenges of graduate recruitment and how to address them. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

The challenges
The challenges include a shortage of STEM graduates, high competition – not just from the big consultancies and banks but across the spectrum and spiralling graduate expectations of the workplace. The recruitment world has changed, undoubtedly. Increasing competition for decreasing resource is compounded by the fact that the so-called Gen Y (those born in the 1990s) want to do meaningful work. Preferably, as Google puts it so well, ‘Cool things that matter’. They expect to take their devices to work, they don’t expect to work long hours, they want a work life balance and they want to do a real job from day one.

What are today’s employers and recruitment marketers meant to make of these challenges? How can they compete in a world where the best students get £50 notes stuffed into their college pigeon holes with an invitation to have a few drinks on the company? (Actually, we all agreed that’s counter-productive – read on to find out why.)

The students: cynical and idealistic
In our recent panel of Cambridge STEM students we found many of these traits were exacerbated, perhaps unsurprisingly in one of the world’s best Universities. But in truth, the fight for top talent applies in every sector and every geography. The best students are over-targeted by potential employers, picky about their options, and have a wonderful combination of cynicism and idealism. Highly aware of ‘marketing ploys’ (and hence suspicious of the £50 note stunt), they keenly want to understand the true values of the company, see evidence that they would be working with like-minded peers, and offered clear career progression. The best are also dismissive of complex and time-consuming online application processes – they have better things to do – and of recruiters. They want to talk to people in the company who are recent graduates doing the jobs they are interested in or more senior leaders with the careers they aspire to.

Brand matters
A key topic in the discussion about recruitment challenges was brand. All the companies round the table were household names or major sector players, but they had all encountered a lack of understanding of what the company actually does, and the values it espouses. Lack of overall awareness in this target market is obviously one problem that needs to be tackled. But our panel students were highly aware of any disconnects between what was said about the company as an ‘employer brand’ vs what they saw of the company’s external image. Operationally, this throws up further challenges for recruitment marketers because the company’s external promotion doesn’t necessarily communicate the brand the way they want potential employees to see it, but in many cases recruitment marketers are not involved in external brand decisions.

More than money
Third and finally, we talked about salaries. These obviously fluctuate from the more common mid-20s to the stratospheric 70s offered by magic circle law firms. The agreement round the table was that a competition based on salary alone is one you are unlikely to win. Students self-select anyway, choosing whether to enter the Faustian pact offered by the City, top consultancies or law firms; or whether to put other values to the fore, based on specific interests or beliefs. But in every case, what’s important for employers to attract their candidates is to surround the money with ‘meaningful things’. These might include a strong sense of organisational purpose, values which espouse sustainability and the authenticity valued highly by Gen Y, or simply sharing the passion of the people already at work there.

Omobono recently ran an interview panel to canvass the views of Cambridge University STEM undergraduates heading for careers in the world’s best companies. We asked them what motivates them, who they want to work for and how to reach them effectively. If you’d like to know more about our findings and how to overcome the challenges of graduate recruitment, get in touch.

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